The W116, built from 1972 to 1980, was the first Mercedes flagship sedan to be labeled an S Class.
The new designation went hand in hand with a whole bundle of innovations that set new standards in respect of safety and comfort.
The comprehensive safety concept included a collision-proof fuel tank, a four-spoke safety steering wheel, dirt-deflecting side windows, larger headlamps, distinctive turn signal lamps and dirt-deflecting ribbed rear lamps.
Five years after the W116’s launch saw the dawn of the diesel age in the premium class with the 300 SD, although this was initially just in the North American markets. The luxury diesel was also the first production car with a turbodiesel engine, and in 1978 it became the first car with anti-lock ABS brakes.
The transfer of technology from the S Class to other Mercedes models, as well as those from rival brands, continued in the years that followed, turning the S Class into a genuine trendsetter.
The airbag, now a key component of automotive safety, made its debut in 1981, in the W126 S Class, which was built from 1979 right up until 1991. The airbag first arrived only for the driver but later it was also offered for the passenger in this generation. Despite its obvious safety, the technology still didn't become popular in other makes until the late 1980s and early '90s.
Other features from this S Class generation included the aerodynamically-enhanced shape and systematic weight reduction through the use of lightweight materials, including special alloys for construction of its engines.
The W126 also set the trend in terms of its design: it was the first Mercedes to do away with the traditional chrome bumpers in favor of deformable plastic ones built to withstand a ‘parking dent’.
Initially felt by some observers to be plain and tasteless, the design eventually became an industry standard, even to this day.
With the introduction of the W140 series S Class in 1991, Mercedes-Benz was criticized for getting a little carried away with the size of the model. The aim was maximum safety and comfort, but many a customer was turned off by the tank-like design.
This model series also saw the introduction of V-12 engines at Mercedes-Benz. The entry model was the 300 SD turbodiesel, which now brought luxury class to the diesel segment in the markets outside of North America too.
This generation of the S Class also introduced a pioneering safety innovation to the world of automotive engineering: Electronic Stability Program (ESP). This was fitted as standard on the V-12 versions and was available as an option on the V-8 models from 1995 onwards. The following year also saw the addition of the first Brake Assist System.
With the criticism of the W140’s design, Mercedes looked to rectify the issue with its understated W220 S Class launched in 1998. Weight saving and a further increase in safety and comfort were among the primary development goals, while the design itself took on a more feminine appearance.
Despite having to abandon weight-intensive features such as double glazing, the new model generation offered even greater comfort, not least due to the new electronically controlled air suspension, COMAND interface, and new proximity-controlled cruise control system.
Other tech features launched during this generation were active body control, pre-safe crash injury minimizing technology, 4MATIC all-wheel drive and the first AMG performance variant.
The W221 presented in 2005 is still on sale today, though it will be replaced next year by the brand new W222 series. With this generation, Mercedes engineers focused on improving the car’s technology, both in terms of comfort and safety.
This included the addition new night vision technology, new brake systems with partially autonomous control and later on new blind spot and lane keeping assist systems. A facelifted model was launched in 2009 and saw the introduction of a new hybrid variant as well as a four-cylinder model offered overseas.
Despite being in its last model year, the W221 series Mercedes-Benz S Class remains the best selling full-size luxury sedan in the world. In the U.S., it proudly commands a 27 percent share of its segment.
As for the W222, it will continue the S Class’ tradition of debuting the latest in automotive technology and will include new coupe and convertible variants. This will also be the first production model, in history, to feature fully autonomous control
. The aim, says Mercedes, is accident free driving, which could become a reality within the next decade.